Swirls: BYOB? A tale of 2 restaurants, including one that brushes off a well-known NY retailer on a special night out

A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted with a dinner at our neighborhood bistro, Café du Soleil, on New York’s Upper West Side. The reason? For one thing, it perfectly satisfied the carnivorous cravings of our family of four, including hangar steak and leg of lamb for the parents, a steak au poivre for the 12-year-old and a good old hamburger for the 16-year-old (all with some of New York’s best French fries). Beyond the food was the price of Wine stilllife a high-end bottle of California cab -- $20. This was not some special wine offer but the very modest (by New York standards) corkage fee the restaurant charges, which permitted us to enjoy  Hawk and Horse’s excellent 2007 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails for $65 and which I had received as a press sample. Clearly the owners want to bring in business, and with good food and an encouraging bring-your-own-wine policy, I look forward to our next dinner there.

For Jamie Wolff, a partner at New York’s Chambers Street Wines, it was a far different experience when he and some friends sat down at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve. Jamie began to relate the experience the other day when I stopped by the store (one of the country’s leading retailers of artisanal, small-production wines) and told him about a piece I had written about ridiculous wine markups. I asked Jamie to send me an email about his experience, and here is some of what he wrote:


Sips: An odd couple that proves to be a superb food and wine matchup

I had a delightful revelation about food and wine the other night. But first, a little background on how I got there. For years, I’ve had an unwritten rule about Italian-inspired food: match it with Italian wines, which so often seem just the right choice. With linguine and white clam sauce is there anything better than a pinot grigio from Alto Adige or a Vernaccia di San Gimignano? Don’t tomato-based sauces, with or without meat, Gamayseem made for Chianti Classico or Barbera d’Alba? With that in mind, I was headed in the direction of Italian wine the other night as I made a simple sauce built around the last Ziploc bag of tomatoes I had picked at their peak ripeness in late summer and early fall, then frozen to be enjoyed many months later.

After cooking the tomatoes down and breaking them apart with a wooden spatula, I poured them into my favorite cast-iron skillet, in which I had sautéed three or four cloves of chopped garlic in olive oil. I tossed in a handful each of chopped basil and parsley  and a pinch or two of salt and cooked everything for a few minutes more. A quick taste revealed a sauce sweeter than anything that might have started in a can, confirming the rewards that come from the time and trouble of storing fresh tomatoes. Meanwhile, a pot of fusilli was now done to al dente, which I combined in the skillet with the sauce. To finish things off, I sprinkled a generous amount of chopped fresh mozzarella over the pasta and put the skillet under the broiler until the cheese and the top layer of fusilli were a crispy brown, but not burned (cast-iron is best for withstanding the high temperatures of the broiler).

Now about the wine. Since my instinct steered me toward Italy, I opened a bottle of red I had on hand, a negroamaro from Salento in Puglia. Alas, I knew immediately that this wine was not going to cut it. It was earthy with low acidity, a wine more for a juicy roast than a lively sauce. I wanted something that jumped out of the glass, a wine with refreshing acids that wouldn’t be overpowered by the tomatoes. And so, throwing caution to the wind, I opened a red from France’s Loire Valley I had bought that day.

By now you might be thinking it was a cabernet franc, the region’s principle red, or perhaps a pinot noir or a cot, as malbec is called there. In fact, it was the 2009 Gamay from Serge Batard’s Domaine Les Hautes Noelles, a Vin de Pays from this top producer of Muscadet from Cotes de Grandlieu sub-zone. Its transparent, light-ruby red color suggests a wine of delicacy that might easily be overpowered. But just the opposite was the case. Packed with flavor and with great underlying acidity and minerality, it more than held its own against the sauce and, slightly chilled, provided the perfect refreshing counterpoint. With flavors or red and black cherry, a touch of gingerbread and a very long finish, this is a wine of unusual finesse and, at just $10 here in New York, is one of the great bargains out there right now. Alcohol is 12 percent.

And so, my rule about Italian food and wine was broken. A humble gamay, the same grape grown in Beaujolais, proved itself exceptionally well with, of all things, a big-flavored pasta sauce. A Daniel Johness Selection, imported by Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, New York.


Swirls: Restaurant wine follow-up – some perspective from a venerable New York establishment that does the right thing

Once a week or so, I make it a point to sneak out of my office for a quick lunch, which inevitably leads me on a 10-minute walk to the famed Oyster Bar & Restaurant at Grand Central Station. There, I almost always order one of New York’s great cheap meals – an overflowing bowl of New England clam chowder, which goes for $6.25 (a tomato-based Manhattan chowder is $5.75). The price includes a homemade roll and all the crackers you can eat. I Wine list never order wine at lunch, but yesterday I left with one of the Oyster Bar’s menus, which, on the reverse side of the large single page, features the  extensive wine list.

In light of my post last week that was critical of a downtown Manhattan restaurant that seemed to be marking up its wines exorbitantly even by New York standards and offering exactly two wines under $40, I wanted to refresh my memory about the Oyster Bar’s wines and their prices. A quick glance surprised me: not only does this New York institution, which is frequented by as many tourists as business people, offer reasonably priced wines, but it does so with a vengeance. On my way home last night on the subway, I actually counted the number of wines and then added up those priced under $40. Out of 183 full-sized bottles, both red and white, fully 46 of them were priced between $30 and $38. I’ll repeat it: one quarter of the wines were $38 or less.

Of the 46, 11 of these wines were sauvignon blancs --quintessential fish and shellfish wines with examples from Chile, Washington, the Loire Valley and Gascony in France, Spain’s Rueda, South Africa, Austria, Long Island and Sonoma.  Other under-$40 selections included a couple of sparkling wines, a few chardonnays and examples of  riesling, viognier, chenin blanc, pinot grigio, gewürztraminer, gruner veltliner, soave, orvieto, grillo and assorted other whites. Talk about a variety of reasonably priced wines! Though more limited, there were also a number of reds priced at between $32 and $38.

The point here is that many if not most diners would like to order wine, but at a price they they consider fair. Not only does the Oyster Bar offer dozens of reasonably priced wines, but the higher the price the less the markup seems to be, which conforms to a  favorable practice by some restaurants that a number or readers of last week’s story pointed to. The Oyster  Bar is a big restaurant and, with its volume, is clearly in a position to offer more relatively inexpensive wines. Smaller  restaurants should be offering reasonably priced wines in droves, especially in this persistently tough economy. I have no doubt that more patrons would order more wine, which would be good for everyone.


Swirls: The coming out of organic wine -- some things to keep in mind

Suddenly, it seems, the organic wine crowd is coming out of the woodwork. From growers to importers to supermarkets and other retailers, the wine world is seizing on “organic” as never before. Some growers, of course, have been making natural wines for years, including quite a few in France’s Loire Valley where most choose not to call attention to the fact, preferring to let the wines speak for themselves. And many of them do as wines of distinction. So the bar is high for wineries that trumpet the fact that they are producing organic wines or wines made from organic grapes (I’ll explain the difference in just a minute). My guess is that the market is ready to embrace the organic wine movement more broadly, but the wines will have to demonstrate that they have character, passing the same critical (and consumer) taste tests that non-organic wines must endure.

One that does is Cirelli’s 2010 Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, a delightful and refreshing non-oaked white made from organic trebbiano grapes in the Abruzzo region of southern Italy. A group of friends really liked this $14 wine when we served it at a holiday dinner party a couple of weeks ago, and my only regret is that I didn’t buy three or four bottles of it from Chambers Street Wines here in New York, which, speaking of natural and organic and biodynamic wines, has pioneered the trend among retailers for some years now. With stone fruit, pear, herb and citrus notes, Cirelli’s trebbiano is enhanced by an underlying minerality and was excellent with cheeses and other appetizers. Alcohol is a modest and welcome 12.5 percent. (A Zev Rovine Selection, imported by Fruit of the Vine, Long Island City, New York.)

Few wines in this country are labeled “USDA Organic.” That’s because under Department of Agriculture rules, organic wines cannot contain added sulfites, which are used in varying degrees by the vast majority of wineries as a preservative (and which some people say gives them headaches). If a wine is made from organically grown grapes but has sulfites added, the label can only say that it is made from organic grapes, as with the Cirelli wine.

Before the other day, I couldn’t recall the last time I received a wine with the USDA Organic designation. The bottle was from Italy, La Cantina Pizzolato’s 2010 Organic Cabernet Sauvignon NSA, from the Piave appellation in the Veneto region. NSA refers to “no sulfites added,” and the labeling on this wine makes the point that it contains “naturally occurring sulfites.”

I didn’t quite know what to expect but was pleasantly surprised. It's a light cabernet with an almost unheard of alcohol level of 12 percent (most New World cabs are in the 13.5-15 percent range). It has good varietal character with red fruit and blueberry notes and a subtle herbal touch. Made without oak, it reminded me more of Beaujolais than Bordeaux and was stylistically as far away from California cab as you can get. Delicate and refreshing and a bargain at a suggested price of $11. Try it slightly chilled with chicken, pork and veal.

The wine was sent to me by Natural Merchants, an importer of organic and biodynamic wines in Grants Pass, Oregon. Interestingly, I received a press release the other day from Whole Foods Market announcing the fact that it was the only national retailer to carry NSA wines from Italy and Spain, including the cabernet and others from Pizzolato, which it described as “Italy’s top-selling organic winery.” Organic and NSA, it seems, are about to go mainstream.


Eats: What may be the best $2 meal in NYC (or the country)

Over the holidays I found myself a couple of times in New York's Chinatown, a place that, despite its fame and familiarity, remains a largely separate world. Whenever I'm there, I make a point of stopping by the hole-in-the-wall restaurant simply called "Fried Dumpling" on Mosco Street, a one-block lane you'll have to search for. The name is pedestrian but says it all. They make their own fried pork dumplings here and that's it. They are crispy and delicious. Five for $1, 10 for $2, which is about enough for two people to split on a walk through the neighborhood on a brisk January day. With a squeeze or two of chili sauce, they warm the body and the spirit. Fried Dumpling may just be the ultimate cheap meal. Wine? Not served here. Beer? Ditto. A ginger ale will do just fine. (Photos: Vint-ed.com)
As you can see, Fried Dumpling earned an "A" rating from the city's Health Department. The place is immaculate, including the closet-size restroom.

A woman, presumably the owner, does the cooking and serving and takes your payment (cash only), while a young man, who didn't want to be photographed, works to the side assembling the dumplings.
Perhaps the ultimate $2 meal.



Swirls: In a restaurant, feeling like a prisoner of excessive wine markups

How often, when enjoying an evening out, are you distracted by annoying wine issues? For us, a case in point came the other night when friends invited us to dinner at a restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village. In these budget-conscious times, don’t we all want to believe we’re getting good value when eating out in both food and wine?

But that was hard at this restaurant, where the least expensive white wine on the list was a vidal blanc from the Finger Lakes at $42 and where I endedWine rack up choosing a sauvignon blanc from France’s Loire Valley, Domaine de la Chaises’s 2010 Touraine, a wine I had enjoyed not long ago and reviewed here. On one hand, I was glad to see a wine on the list I was familiar with and had recommended, but I winced, then laughed in astonishment, when I saw the price. This very good (but hardly sensational) wine, available at retail for $13, was $48.

When the sommelier, an imposing young man who might have been an actor or model in another life, returned with our bottle, he announced rather ceremoniously in his baritone voice, “The 2009 Domaine de la Chaise.” I wanted to chuckle again. The formality -- and the price – were at odds with the way I thought of this wine, as a fresh and delightful sauvignon that would pair well with a variety of appetizers and lighter main courses, which it did on this evening. When I told the sommelier that I knew the retail price of this wine, he smiled knowingly but withheld comment.

He did, of course, make sure that our glasses were always topped off, even though (in our minds at least) we were certainly going to order a second bottle because we were enjoying it, despite the high price for a relatively cheap wine. And when we did, that brought the tab for two bottles of Domaine de la Chaise to $96. Which takes me once again to the issue of restaurant and wine economics and The Markup. I am keenly aware that restaurants make much of their profit from wine, and I have come to expect the price of wine in restaurants to be about three times retail, which would have put the Domaine de la Chaise at around $39 instead of $48 and would have made the selection more palatable (yes, $9 makes a difference to me).

It’s worth noting as well that the standard markup from wholesale to retail is 50 percent, which means that the cost of this wine to a store or a restaurant is under $10 – and probably even less depending on how many cases are ordered. So the markup (not necessarily the profit) on each bottle of the sauvignon blanc we ordered is around 400 percent, which seems excessive even by New York standards. (The least expensive red, by the way, was a Montepulicano d’Abruzzo from Italy at $44.)

I can’t help but think that if the markups came down a bit and a few more relatively inexpensive wines were offered at this and other restaurants, profit from wine would be the same or even greater. And most of us would feel at least a little more as though we were getting our money’s worth. What do you think? Please share your recent experiences and observations on wine in restaurants.